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       Hawx (2009), p.2

           Tom Clancy
 
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  "How could they see anything in all this clutter?"

  "I bet they do," Troy said grimly. "I'll bet you ten bucks they got their binocs locked on us right this minute. If we get across that ridge, we'll be out of sight. We'll also be going down while they're still going up. We can move faster than them."

  "Maybe we should just let 'em catch us?" Coughlin suggested. "They'd have to feed us . . . I'm starved .. . wish we hadn't lost all our gear . . . and rations . . . in that stream yesterday. Even an MRE would taste good right now."

  "Shut up, you're making me hungry." Troy laughed. He was hungry, and he was so cold that he was shivering and yearning for some calories. The only good thing about the light drizzle was that a drink was always as close as the nearest large leaf.

  "Let's just let 'em catch up to us, then. We gave a good go. We've outrun 'em for two whole days. We did pretty good."

  "You want to go through that interrogation they do when they catch you? Man, that's a bitch."

  "This is a bitch," Coughlin whined. "It's a cold, wet bitch."

  At least Coughlin had gotten up and they were moving again. Every step took them closer to the top and extended the distance between them and those who were trying to capture them. Troy and Hal knew that for those guys, it was a matter of pride to catch every single little bird who was dropped into this wilderness.

  "What would your daddy say if he heard you wanted to give up?"

  "Don't bring my father into this," Coughlin snarled. "Sorry," Troy said, half meaning it. He knew that he had touched a nerve--a very raw nerve.

  Hal's father, Illinois congressman Halbert Coughlin, Sr., was the chairman of the House Military Appropriations Subcommittee and a powerful force inside the Beltway. He had pulled a lot of strings for Hal through the years, but he could pull no strings out here.

  In the early days, Hal relished the fact that strings were pulled on his behalf. He had gotten into a good Washington prep school and had gotten out of it quite smoothly, despite some hijinks whose consequences his father's string-pulling made go away. Ditto with Northwestern. Hal probably wouldn't have gotten in without the congressman's off-the-record phone calls, and he certainly would not have graduated.

  Since being in the Air Force, though, Hal had begun to see and understand the downside of Daddy's influence, and he had come to yearn for the opportunity to do things for himself--on his own.

  He craved the opportunity to get out from beneath his father's shadow, to make his own choices, to guide his own life. Most fathers would encourage this, but the Illinois congressman had been more interested in molding his son as he thought best than in allowing Hal to develop as his own man.

  The two men resumed the climb without speaking, concentrating on grabbing branches and half-pulling themselves up the slope. As the sopping wet brush got thicker, climbing the hill was almost like swimming upstream.

  The injury to his arm that Troy had suffered when he made a bad landing in his parachute two days earlier made this whole process difficult and painful. He wasn't about to complain, though--certainly not to Hal Coughlin.

  They made the crest of the ridge before dark, as Troy had hoped, and started down the other side. On this side of the ridge there was significantly less brush, although the grade was slightly steeper. At least they now had gravity on their side. They were headed down, while the bad guys were still climbing.

  Nightfall came quickly, its black glove hastened by their descent into thicker forest in the lower reaches of the canyon. Not far below, they heard the rattling of a stream running off the hillside.

  "Ouch! I can't see a thing," Hal complained. "Just almost poked out my eye on a branch."

  There was a quavering in Hal's voice that he could not control. Troy had been recognizing the signs of hypothermia in his fellow pilot since early afternoon. Crashing through wet brush all day had soaked them to the bone, despite the water-resistant flight suits they were wearing. When darkness came, the plummeting temperatures didn't help.

  "Keep moving," Troy said, repeating a phrase that he had been using and abusing all day long.

  "Move where? I can't see where I'm going."

  "Down," Troy said as he paused to catch his breath. "Down where?"

  "Stop your bitchin', Hal."

  "I'm serious, man. How the hell do we know where the hell we're going?"

  "We're going down," Troy repeated patronizingly as he nodded toward the nearby sound of running water.

  "On this side of the ridge, all the streams lead down to the Kettle River, and the Kettle River leads out of here." "You want to follow a stream?"

  "Yeah, it's the road out of here. Not only that, the noise of running water will mask the sound of running pilots."

  They clambered down a few dozen yards and took a look at the stream. It was very dark, but the trace of ambient light from a mist-shrouded moon highlighted the stream well enough for them to make it out as it cascaded down a narrow V-shaped crotch in the hillside.

  "There ain't no riverbank on it," Hal exclaimed. "It's too steep. We can't follow it without falling into it."

  "So that's the way it'll have to be," Troy said impatiently.

  "We'll get more soaked than we already are!"

  "You more afraid of a little water or a lot of interrogation?" Troy asked. "They're gonna do a Gitmo on your ass if you get caught."

  "I say we stop here and build us a fire and dry out and rest awhile," Hal proposed.

  "Fucking start a fucking fire?" Troy exploded. "That's a beacon for them to catch us! They'll see a fire from a mile away and we're only about a mile from the top of that ridge."

  "Fuck you, man. We've been walking for two days. We barely slept last night. You're fuckin' nuts. If we go splashing down that creek, the odds are even we'll end up with hypothermia. I'm shivering already, man."

  "We're out here to evade, man," Troy retorted. "We're not out here to fuckin' submit."

  "There's no guarantee that if we do that we're gonna get away," Hal insisted.

  "I can guarantee we will get caught if we stay here and start a fire," Troy countered.

  It was like debating with one of the wet logs over which they'd been stumbling. It was clear that Hal had reached the end of the line.

  Troy looked back up the slope into the wall of damp darkness. The only sound was the chirping and gurgling of the stream, but somewhere up that hill was a team of men with night-vision gear coming toward them. To be captured probably meant days of hell, but none of the people who went through SERE knew exactly what it was like until it happened to them.

  Looking up and down the indistinct hillside, and at Hal, Troy knew that he had to make a decision, and make it now. If he was going to continue to try to evade, he had to go, and go now.

  Chapter 4

  Fairchild AFB

  LIEUTENANT JENNA MUNROUGH LOOKED ACROSS THE room at two dozen people whose lives had been irrevocably altered by their experiences over the past week. It was a week that seemed like ten.

  As she looked at the faces, and as her eyes fell on empty chairs, she realized that the most graphic aspect of this morning was not the expressions on those faces, but the memory of faces not present.

  The Combat Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) exercise had begun here in this classroom. It was a classroom like any other; it was a class like any other. The instructors had a lot to say, and the students absorbed the class content to varying degrees. Nothing, though, had prepared them for what was to come.

  Many of the more macho guys were cocky, sure that they would get through the exercise with ease. The four women in the group had known that they were perceived as weak links, and they were determined to prove their detractors wrong.

  Three of the four had. Jenna was one of this trio.

  No woman who had sat in this room a week ago was more determined to triumph than Lieutenant Jenna Munrough. Born in the Ozarks, about fifty miles southeast--as the crow flies--from Fayetteville, Arkansas, she was no strange
r to hill country. She had spent the first ten years of her life roaming those hills, and the second ten years of her life yearning to get as far from those hills as she could.

  Life in a double-wide is fine when you're seven, but by the time you're seventeen, you start thinking that there has to be a better way.

  Jenna had been raised in a world where women are bred not to have ambitions beyond the confines of the community where they were born. A third of the girls in her high school class were mothers by graduation day. Jenna rebelled. Beginning with community college, she had climbed a ladder that led to Air Force Officer Training School, to flight school at Laughlin AFB, and now here. Her yearning to get away from the Ozarks had led her to the rugged wilderness of the Kettle River Range.

  It was a hell on earth that not everyone in their section of thirty-two had gotten through--but Jenna had.

  So too had her partner in the exercise, a young lieutenant from upstate New York. His twisted ankle had meant that they were finally captured on the fourth day, but he acknowledged that without Jenna's ingenuity, they would have been captured the first day.

  The mock POW camp had been its own special kind of hell, but being among those who were captured last, they had endured less of it. After the whole experience, there were several dropouts from the program who had simply given up on a career path as a combat pilot.

  Only two in the entire section were never captured--Lieutenant Troy Loensch and Lieutenant Hal Coughlin. Loensch had successfully evaded capture and had walked out. He had walked into a gas station on Highway 395 and asked to use the phone. Hal was found on the third day of the exercise, suffering from hypothermia and near death. He wound up in the hospital, and Loensch had wound up with a reprimand for having abandoned his partner.

  As she glanced around, Jenna saw Loensch sitting stoically in the back of the room. On one hand she admired him for successfully evading teams of well-equipped troops with night-vision gear, but on the other hand she despised a man who would go off and leave someone who was physically unable to carry on. This especially angered her, given that she had also been with an injured partner.

  As the debriefing session concluded and everyone began getting up to break for lunch, his eye caught hers. He stood, deliberately not making eye contact.

  "Don't say it," he said. "I've already heard it. I know I screwed up."

  "It's good you know that," Jenna said, her eyes drilling into his guilty conscience. "Because you sure as hell did screw up . . . big-time. I know what you're thinking."

  "What am I thinking?"

  "You're thinking that crap about how the ends justify the means," Jenna replied in her Ozark drawl. "You're thinking how evading and getting out at all costs is what it's all about."

  "And it's not?" Troy parried. "Seems like this deal was named Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape . . . not `do good for your neighbor.' "

  "You're an asshole," Jenna said, shaking her head. "You know that?"

  "I know," Troy agreed. "I've been told that, and I cop to it. I am. I know it. Coughlin knows it. But this world is full of assholes and we're in a business where we gotta deal with some of the worst assholes on earth."

  "Nice guys finish last, huh?" Jenna said sarcastically.

  She wondered whether she would have made it herself if she had abandoned her partner. The idea had occurred to her while she was out there, but she had never seriously entertained the thought.

  "Maybe it's just a case of assholes finishing first." Troy shrugged.

  Jenna looked into his hard eyes and wondered what it was about him that would make him react one way, and about her to make her react another.

  "What if Coughlin had died up there?" Jenna asked. "How'd that have made you feel?"

  "Like shit. It would have made me feel like shit . like I was a bigger asshole than I already am."

  "So, why'd you do it?"

  "I told you," Troy said coldly. "I went up there to survive and evade, so that I wouldn't have to resist and try to escape."

  As he watched the slender woman with the short blond hair walk away in disgust, Troy still felt the sting of her words and the tone of her voice with a trace of a hillbilly accent and more than a trace of seething anger.

  He had been honest with her. He did know that he had screwed up. When he heard how Coughlin had been found, nearly unconscious, only about thirty feet from where they had parted company that night, Troy had felt the sharp sting of guilt ripping into him like a combat knife with an eight-inch blade. Hal would survive and make a full recovery--but it had been touch and go.

  He had rationalized his guilt to himself as he had to Lieutenant Munrough.

  The mission of the downed pilot really is to survive, evade, resist, and escape. If it really had been an operational mission, one pilot who escapes is better than two that are captured.

  What probably bothered Troy the most was that in his gut, he really was starting to believe in the survival of the asshole at all costs.

  Eight years of football had taught him the importance of being and functioning as part of a team.

  The past days and months on the track toward being a fighter pilot had taught him that he was alone in the world, and responsible for himself first--and perhaps for himself last. His survival, whether in the cockpit or on a cold, miserable mountain, depended only on the asshole that he had become.

  Souda Bay, Crete

  THEY SAY IT TAKES ONE TO KNOW ONE.

  To a lot of people who had crossed him through the years, Illinois congressman Halbert Coughlin, Sr., was an asshole. For someone doing business in the killor-be-killed cauldron of Illinois politics, it is almost a prerequisite.

  It takes one to know one.

  Illinois congressman Halbert Coughlin, Sr., knew an asshole when he saw one, and Troy Loensch, the asshole who had left his son to die on a mountainside in the middle of nowhere, was definitely an asshole.

  As if his guilt were not bad enough, Lieutenant Troy Loensch had found out the hard way that having left the son of the chairman of the House Military Appropriations Subcommittee on a mountainside in the middle of nowhere was definitely something that would change your career path.

  One week, Lieutenant Loensch had been fast-tracked for a seat inside the cockpit of an F-22 Raptor, the Air Force's premier air-superiority fighter. The next week, his career had taken a turn for the dark side. Calls had been made, favors called in. Thanks to the strings pulled by Hal's influential father, Lieutenant Loensch would not, after all, be getting his assignment to Air Combat Command.

  However, the Air Force does not like to throw pilots away, especially ones who slide through SERE without getting caught. Lieutenant Loensch was ordered to report to a nondescript building at Lackland AFB on the edge of San Antonio. On the door was a black and blue shield on which was inscribed a sword crossed with a key under a black chessman. Behind the carefully guarded door marked with this insignia was Troy's new life as part of the secretive Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Agency (ISR).

  The ISR is into a lot of things, some of which you see, some of which you don't. The agency is into a whole host of disparate activities, all of them classified, including signals intelligence, cryptography, cyber warfare, and harvesting intelligence on foreign air and space weapons and systems. Its personnel spend their days in windowless bunkers or flying missions in electronic warfare and reconnaissance aircraft around the world.

  The ISR's 55th Wing used to fly Looking Glass, the Strategic Air Command's airborne nuclear command post. Since the first Gulf War, the 55th has flown intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions in support of the U. S. Central Command.

  The first eighteen months of Lieutenant Troy Loensch's career with the 55th were spent in the right seat of an EC-32 electronic surveillance aircraft, a modified Boeing 757 airliner, flying around the world in a white paint job, while the spooks in the back did their snooping.

  On his rare trips home, he had confided in Cassi
e Kilmer that he felt like an airline pilot. She suggested sarcastically that maybe he ought to get out of the Air Force and get a real job. If he felt like an airline pilot, maybe he ought to be one. Of course, he couldn't just quit. She knew that and she told him so. She just found herself caring less and less about what he did. From her perspective, Cassie had made the transition from "the girl left behind" to someone who was living her life regardless of a man who happened to drop in for a few days every nine months or so--and Troy could sense this, even though it remained unspoken.

  Their relationship was definitely unraveling. He should have foreseen this when he had joined up--but foresight had not exactly been the strong point in Troy's life.

  The last few weeks of Captain Troy Loensch's career were spent with the 95th Reconnaissance Squadron, a unit of the 55th Wing based at RAF Mildenhall in the United Kingdom, and flying missions out of Souda Bay on the Mediterranean island of Crete.

  "Falcon Four . . . you're cleared for Runway Niner Left."

  "Roger, Souda Approach." Troy smiled. "Falcon Four on Niner Left."

  In the distance, Crete was a dust-colored patch in the deep blue Mediterranean Sea. He could see the white wake of a ferry headed into the bay, and two miles ahead on the crescent of the Akrotiri Peninsula, he could make out the two runways of the Souda Air Base.

  Troy was happy to finally be off the flight deck of the EC-32 and into a fighter. Actually, he was now flying a modified fighter, but it was still a fighter. His new airplane was one of several similar Block 40 F-16C Fighting Falcons that had started their combat career flying combat air support in the Balkans but had later been retrofitted for electronic reconnaissance. Smart eavesdropping pods replaced smart bombs.

  Although the bird was still armed with AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles for self-defense, it was a snooper, not a fighter. Technically, it was now an EF-16C, but the Air Force didn't apply such designations for fear of tipping its hand as to the actual function of such birds.

  The aircrews in the 95th had hoped for the new Lockheed Martin EF-35Cs, but the Air Force budgets had been running a little on the tight side lately. Troy didn't mind. Whatever the mission, the F-16 was still a fighter, and at last, he was in the cockpit.

 
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